Many, this humble hockey writer included, truly believe that the Stanley Cup window was closed for the Boston Bruins as currently constituted.
It’s been a glorious run over the last 15 years with a Stanley Cup in 2011, three Stanley Cup final appearances and tons of great memories both regular season and postseason with a core group that’s been anchored by Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Brad Marchand.
But time’s winged chariot always marches on and those years of service are adding up with a 43-year-old Chara, 35-year-old Bergeron and 34-year-old Krejci still carrying a heavy burden and 32-year-old Marchand on the back end of his prime as well.
After watching the Bruins fall short in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last June against the St. Louis Blues sandwiched between second round ousters courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning – both in a scant five games – it feels like the trip to the Cup Final was the outlier for this older group of Bruins players. When they face the best in their division in the postseason, they are having a hard time with a team that’s faster, deeper, bigger and younger than they are with a core group that’s all in their twenties aside from 30-year-old Steven Stamkos.
So there is reason to believe that the Bruins' Cup window is over unless they get a massive infusion of young talent to go along with youthful building blocks in David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy. But just don’t expect Bruce Cassidy to go along with that while acknowledging there’s considerable work to do after falling to Tampa in just five games during this summer’s playoffs.
“The reality is, as every team gets a year older, there is an effect on the team," Cassidy said. "And for us, I think every summer Donny [Sweeney] would tell you, when we sit down and go over our team, we’re always trying to get to be bigger, faster, stronger, better. That’s just the way it is. Does that mean moving out younger guys, older guys, middle of the road guys? There is always that discussion. We’ll have that again. I’m not trying to evade your question. A couple of the older guys, a couple of the core guys are free agents. There’s a decision to be made by the player and by management. It’s not only on management. How do you supplement a core that’s got another year on them?
“I think we’ve done some good with that over the years, obviously, to stay very competitive and be one of the elite teams in the league. We are going to supplement more. We’re going to look at if they have the right pieces around them. Are we coaching them the right way? Do we need to change our systems now because of the way we’ve lost out in the playoffs? Those are all realistic questions. There is always going to be an immediate cry at the end when you lose about what happened.
"We just have to be careful. Sit back for a bit and see, OK, ‘Is the reason because we need to get younger?’ Have some of these guys aged out [and] did we put them in the right position to succeed? Is there a lot more to give? I think there is, personally. We’ll have those discussions. Some of it might be, what if Tampa rolls through everyone and just wins. Are we second best then and are we too critical of ourselves? Or what if Tampa struggles against a certain type of team and then we can say, you know what, that’s where we have to be better. There is a little bit of that that goes on at every level in sports. We want to make sure we don’t rush to judgement, but get the right pieces in place with what you’re able to do.”
Certainly there will be changes regardless as Sweeney alluded to with Chara headed to free agency and undecided on his future. If the 43-year-old wants to stay with the Bruins as a third-pairing defenseman and a penalty killer extraordinaire, there’s no reason to think that might be a possibility on a one-year, short money deal.
Torey Krug will be a bigger decision as an elite offensive defenseman that could command $8 million per season on the free agent market. The Bruins can’t afford that and make some of the necessary changes to supplement the aging core group.
There are also clearly young players like Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic and Urho Vaakanainen who are knocking on the door and will need roster spots cleared for them if they are going to begin contributing at the NHL level. All of these things go into the mix, but it’s clear the Bruins haven’t made any concrete decisions on the future of this group until they see the lay of the land moving forward.
“Donny has a salary cap to abide by. We’ve got prospects in Providence we think are close. We have to look at that and then make the best projection. There is a lot of that that goes on. It’s not that easy to say, OK we’re just going to bring in three big bodies that are going to fly around the ice,” said Cassidy. “You have to have them in your system. You probably have to give up pieces if you don’t. Or you have to groom them [to contribute]. Those are the things that we’re going to sit down and plan. I think what we’ve done well with this organization is if we’ve had to retool, we have and do it on the fly with your core. We’re not afraid of that if that’s what we need to do. Those are discussions I think we’ll have once the dust settles.”
The question is whether it goes beyond retooling on the fly with the core group at this point with so many key players on the wrong side of 30 years old, and a clear roadblock in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning blocking them in their own division.